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Today nearly marks the 5th anny of the first Anthrax attack in US


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Whatever happened to ... the anthrax attacks?


Iain Hollingshead

Saturday September 9, 2006

The Guardian


The media is slowly cranking into gear for the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but the anthrax scares that followed soon afterwards have largely been forgotten. Five years later, the crime still remains unsolved.


While the strikes on the twin towers turned modern aeronautical technology into weapons, the anthrax attacks used the more old-fashioned nexus of "snail mail". Four letters, all containing the same Ames strain of anthrax, were sent to the New York Post, the TV channel NBC and two democratic senators.


Dated 9.11.01, but posted sporadically over the next few weeks, the letters - predictable denunciations of Israel and America - were written in childish capitals. The two letters to the media also advised them to "take Penacilin [sic] now". Identical messages to the senators contained a fictitious return address, the fourth grade of Greendale School in New Jersey. "You die now," stated the letter. "Are you afraid?"


Both senators survived, but five people did die, including two postal workers. Mass hysteria ensued when 17 more people were hospitalised. In Montana, specks of flour on hotdog buns were reported to the police as evidence of anthrax. Sales of the antibiotic Cipro went through the roof. Capitol Hill was closed for weeks, forcing staffers to set up offices in the back of their cars. The Washington Post branded them "wimps" for abandoning their desks.


The rest of the world endured a huge escalation in anthrax hoaxes. Clean-up costs in the US came to over $1bn. The FBI launched a huge investigation, called Amerithrax. After ruling out a possible al-Qaida link, it focused on domestic terrorists and then the US biodefence programme. To date, no one has been arrested and only Steven J Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, has been publicly identified as a "person of interest". After losing his job in the fallout, Hatfill issued a legal writs against the government and media organisations.


An FBI spokesperson now confirms that "two dedicated squads" are still working full-time on the case. Their profiling, however, appears worryingly vague. The suspect is apparently a "non-confrontational person, at least in his public life". He is likely to "prefer being by himself more often than not. If he is involved in a personal relationship, it will likely be of a self-serving nature." Members of the public are helpfully warned not to "open, smell or taste" suspicious packages, especially if "mailed from a foreign country" or containing "protruding wires".


In the absence of anything more concrete, it is not surprising that conspiracy theories abound. One of the more convincing explanations for the lack of progress on the scaled-down Amerithrax operation is that the suspect is privy to embarrassing government secrets. A Newsnight programme in 2002 featured one expert who believed it was a botched CIA project attempting to test the practicalities of sending anthrax through the mail. It has even been suggested that the killer was a misguided patriotic individual wanting to demonstrate the US's lack of preparedness for such an attack.


If so, he has certainly achieved his aim. In the wake of the attacks, George Bush announced a threefold increase in funding for research against biochemical threats. Last March, more than 700 US scientists signed a letter protesting that public health research was suffering as a result.


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Sept. 16, 2006, 6:51PM

5 years after terror of anthrax, case grows colder

Deadly germs in the mail rattled the nation in 2001, but time hasn't yielded many clues



Copyright 2006 Hearst News Service


WASHINGTON ? Five years after anthrax killed five people and introduced America to high-tech bioterrorism, one of the biggest crime mysteries of our times remains unsolved.


FBI agents and U.S. postal inspectors have pursued hundreds of leads and interviewed scores of scientists who work with the deadly anthrax bacteria, but the investigation now appears to be languishing.


"No matter what anybody says, if it is five years out, and we are not even seeing any smoke from the investigation, then I would say definitely that this case is cold right now," said Christopher Hamilton, a former FBI counter-terrorism official who worked on the anthrax investigation and is now a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a non-partisan think tank. "This thing is just sitting out there with nothing happening."


The murders-by-germ in the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks added to the nation's anxieties and triggered a massive hunt for the perpetrator who used the mail to spread the bacteria.


Hundreds of FBI personnel worked the case at the outset, struggling to discern whether the Sept. 11 al-Qaida attacks and the anthrax murders were connected before eventually concluding that they were not.


A senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation insisted that "the investigation is still ongoing and intensely active." The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said there "are a number of pending and very important leads that are being pursued."


There are 23 FBI agents and 12 postal inspectors on the case, dubbed the Amerithrax investigation inside the FBI, he said.


The anthrax investigation began after a Florida photojournalist died on Oct. 5, 2001, from an infection produced by the bacteria. Within days, anthrax-laced letters were uncovered at news outlets in New York City and at the Washington office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., then the top Democrat in the Senate. In November, anthrax turned up in a letter sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.


The letters contained similar handwritten notes. The letter to Leahy read: "You cannot stop us. We have the anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."


In addition to the Florida victim, two U.S. postal workers in Washington, a New York hospital worker and an elderly Connecticut woman died from anthrax-borne infections.


The federal government reacted by shutting some congressional offices and the Supreme Court building, while postal facilities throughout the U.S. were put on high alert.


The anthrax attacks led governments and businesses around the nation to devise new safety procedures for handling mail. Some mail handlers wore surgical masks and plastic gloves for protection.


Mail sent to government offices in Washington is irradiated to destroy any dangerous bacteria.


Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacteria and only rarely infects humans. However, the anthrax used in the attacks had been finely milled to make it more easily inhaled, thus increasing its lethality and suggesting a high degree of scientific competence.


Inhaled anthrax can trigger a deadly infection by swelling body parts, flooding the lungs with fluid and igniting internal hemorrhaging.


The FBI has spent much of the ensuing five years in efforts to identify the laboratory where the anthrax ? dubbed the Ames strain ? originated. This is a challenging task because the Ames strain has been widely studied in research centers.


The FBI has enlisted the help of 29 government, commercial and university laboratories to develop a profile of the anthrax used in the attacks. They are looking for a microbial fingerprint based on the theory that different scientists use different production techniques to make anthrax spores, and these varied production techniques impart different chemical and physical signatures.

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